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Discipline and Play

The Art of Engineering

HUMANITIES, March/April 2005 | Volume 26, Number 2

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole spoke recently with David Billington about the beauty, economy, and innovation of structural art. Billington is professor of civil engineering and operations research at Princeton University and has written several books, including Thin-Shelled Concrete Structures and Robert Maillart: The Art of Reinforced Concrete.

Bruce Cole: You teach a very popular engineering course at Princeton for nonengineers. Why is it important, say for humanities students, to study engineering, and vice versa?

David Billington: I teach, actually, three courses like this: one on structures, one on all engineering, and one on rivers. The first two are heavily enrolled as courses that satisfy a lab science for liberal arts students. I think part of the reason is because through engineering one can make science more accessible and more relevant.

The second idea is that we do live in what is often called a technological society, and it is important, therefore, that all students understand how our society got built and how it functions today. That's, I think, the basic idea of why humanities students should study it.

Why engineers should study the humanities is the corollary to that, because there is a deep connection between engineering and the humanities. The way we teach engineering in these courses is from three perspectives: what we call a scientific, a social, and a symbolic perspective. You can't really understand engineering if you don't understand the scientific perspective. That needs no explanation. But social perspective is the fact that you can't build the kinds of things we build unless you have a society that is organized in a way that permits and encourages it. The third thing is that engineering has a significant influence on the art and literature of its time. So we want to make engineers aware of that.

For example, in the art history department--since we make students in one of our engineering programs take at least two courses in that department--the art history people tell us that our engineering students perform better than many liberal arts students in their courses. That's partly because our students have already had our course that makes a connection between art and engineering and have had experience analyzing structures visually.

Cole: I think about how technology now impinges on almost every facet of our life and how engineering not only allows us to communicate better and live better but also shapes what we do. There's that old adage about how men make buildings and then buildings make men.

Billington: Well--we have to watch out for the gender statements there, but still--

Cole: That's right. Well let's put it this way--people make buildings. So engineering is very much a vital part of a liberal arts education, I think.

Billington: I believe it, yes.

Cole: Let me ask you a little bit about your background. What led you to engineering, and then what led you to what I think is an unusual approach, to the teaching of engineering and to the bridging of engineering and the liberal arts and humanities and sciences?

Billington: As an undergraduate at Princeton, I took a very strange engineering course which was sort of barely engineering. It was called Basic Engineering. I took it because it allowed me to take more liberal arts courses than any other engineering program and it didn't specialize in anything. So I took courses in art history, in music, and literature. Those were very important courses to me. Now I didn't make any connection between those and engineering at the time, but I did take them.

Then I won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Europe, and studied there for two years. That was in a way, my engineering education, because I learned structural engineering there. I came back and practiced for eight years and was completely unaware of any kind of tradition that structural engineering at its best would be an art form.

I began to teach in 1960, and because I had worked with architects in practice, I was invited to give a course to architects--graduate students of architecture--even though I was a full-time civil engineering professor.

The architects hated what I was teaching because it was all stick diagrams and formulas and very dry and dull and they despised it. They would bring me pictures of what they considered to be beautiful things--bridges and buildings--and they'd say, "Why can't we study these?" It seemed to me like a reasonable question, but I found nothing in the engineering literature about these things.

There was nothing in the teaching literature of engineering that had any aesthetic appeal at all. Therefore, I began--and I began with the National Endowment of Humanities because Princeton's president Robert Goheen and professor Whitney Oates told me about it. They said, “The Endowment should be interested in this.” So with a colleague, Robert Mark, who was also confronted with the same questions, I went down there and got an early grant that got us started.

The idea was to study structures that were beautiful and see if they were good engineering. That was the challenge for us. We agreed to split history up into two parts. Mark studied things before the Industrial Revolution and I studied things afterwards. The net result was that I came to the conclusion that there was this tradition of structural art that began in the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The tradition we call structural art continues and flourishes today but was unknown--almost literally unknown--in educational circles in this country.

So that impelled me to introduce a course in 1974--again, with help from the National Endowment, and now getting the National Science Foundation a little bit interested, too. That course proved immediately to be popular because it was so visually oriented.

Cole: I'm very proud that the NEH had a role.

Billington: Yes, it did. I hope it has a continuing role now.

Cole: We started talking about the Industrial Revolution.

Billington: Yes.

Cole: What changes in engineering, major changes in engineering, came out of the Industrial Revolution?

Billington: The simple answer to that is everything.

Cole: Everything?

Billington: Everything. Everything we study now, everything we do in engineering, none of it existed before the Industrial Revolution. Nothing. It's all new. That's why the Industrial Revolution is the greatest event in modern history.

For example, the two great early innovations were industrialized iron and efficient steam power. Those innovations did have antecedents. There always was iron, and there always was steam power. But they were so inefficient to produce you couldn't do anything with them until you had the great engineers--they were British--of the late eighteenth century, who changed things radically. So those things brought in a kind of a whole new world.

Cole: Is this true for concrete, as well? I'm thinking of the Roman Pantheon.

Billington: Sure, the Romans had concrete, but they didn't have reinforced concrete--

Cole: Right.

Billington: --and they used concrete in very--what we would today call very primitive ways, very clever ways often, but very primitive. As you said, the Pantheon was concrete, but it was very, very heavy, and it cracked substantially. They learned from that, of course. But they were not essentially what we would call modern concrete designers at all. In fact, there was such a break that concrete had to be essentially reinvented, and the Pantheon had no influence on that.

Cole: Interesting. So this is what you're talking about, these antecedents that then really are transformed by the Industrial Revolution--

Billington: Transformed, yes. But then, of course, there are completely brand new things that come in--reinforced concrete and structural steel, cars and planes, electrical power and networks that send power out or send sound out, and the refining of steel and oil in completely new ways--that made it possible to use things in ways they never had been used for before.

Cole: You've got a new book coming out on engineering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Billington: Right. Right.

Cole: What's the title?

Billington: The book is cowritten with my son David Jr., who is an historian. We call it Innovators II because I had written a previous book called The Innovators, which dealt with the period up to the late nineteenth century. So the tentative title is Innovators II, but Princeton University Press doesn't like that much, so we're probably going to discuss that in the next couple of months.

Cole: The sequel.

Billington: It's definitely a sequel. It picks up where the other one left off.

Cole: So who are some of the great engineering/architecture heroes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century?

Billington: The first one we deal with is Thomas Edison and then George Westinghouse. The next chapter deals with Alexander Graham Bell. These are pretty obvious choices. The third chapter deals with the oil industry, which involves, of course, Rockefeller as the entrepreneur, but the two engineers are William Burton and Eugene Houdry, names you probably never heard of. But they were fundamental people who changed the way oil was refined and made it a modern industry.

Then the next chapter deals with the automobile, and that's where we deal with Henry Ford, obviously, and Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Then the airplane, where we discuss the Wright brothers and Samuel Pierpoint Langley.

The following chapter is on the radio, where we begin with Marconi and then move to all the battles that ensued between Armstrong and Sarnoff and Deforest. After that comes steel, where we deal primarily with Othmar H. Ammann and the big steel bridges around New York. Then concrete, where we deal with two engineers who developed major innovations in concrete: Anton Tedesko and John Eastwood. Then, finally, we end up with a chapter on the 1930s, where we are preparing for the World's Fair. The bookends for the volume are the Centennial Fair of 1876 and the World's Fair of 1939. The last chapter deals with the so-called streamlined era, the art deco era of the 1930s, and we focus on Donald Douglas and the DC-3, and Walter Chrysler and the airflow car. So those are the figures we deal with.

Cole: It just struck me that almost everyone you mentioned came from the United States.

Billington: We are only focusing on the United States. That doesn't mean things didn't happen elsewhere.

Cole: Right. But these are really monumental inventions--I've forgotten who said that all around the world, almost every minute of every day, the vast majority of people's lives are made better by American innovation.

Billington: That's right. But the reason we had this focus is because we want to connect this to the history of the United States, and to politics and art in the United States.

Cole: Of course, that interests us here because, as you know, we have a new initiative called We the People, which is designed to improve the teaching and study of American history.

Billington: Yes. Right.

Cole: I know this is a very complicated answer, and I'm asking you to give it in sort of a short form, but why did this all happen in the United States? I mean what were the conditions that created this incredible flowering of such innovation.

Billington: The first thing, I think, is the fact that there was in this country, very quickly, a technological infrastructure. Now we got it all from Britain because that's why Britain was the leader in the Industrial Revolution. It was because they had a technological infrastructure.

What I mean by that is that in Britain, all over that country, there were little machine shops. There were people who were learning how to work. They first, of course, were working with wood, but they began working with metal in the middle of the eighteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century there were just all kinds of machine shops. That meant that somebody such as James Watt, for example, who was a great inventor and innovator, could connect with John Wilkinson, who was really, essentially, a machinist, who knew how to bore cannon and knew how to make, therefore, precise cylinders.

Now we got that from Britain. Most of our people in the late eighteenth century were British anyway, and we came with that tradition. We were suppressed by the English, by the British monarchy, from actually having our own industries until the Revolution. But that didn't stop us from having illicit ones and having a lot of technically sophisticated people. When independence came, there was a flowering of this technological infrastructure. People were really interested in making things. So that is, I think, the first prerequisite.

You remember the statement by de Tocqueville? When he came over here, he said he couldn't understand it: there was nobody really interested in science, but they had created something that shook the world. He was talking, of course, about the steamboat, America's first great innovation. But the point was, what he saw was there wasn't much reflective study. It was all active study.

Along with the infrastructure, of course, comes an ethos of progress, you know all those clichés, progress and a better living standard, of bringing up the lower middle classes and so forth, all those things.

I don't pretend to be an expert on all that, but from an engineer's point of view, that's what I see.

Cole: That's very interesting. Is there a difference between invention and innovation?

Billington: Oh, sure, a huge difference. I mean there are millions of inventions in the patent office in America. Very, very few of them ever see the light of day.

I believe the proper definition for an invention is just an idea, an idea that you can show to the patent office as somehow new, but an innovation is something which is--it often comes from an invention, but not always--a new idea that becomes, in effect, practical.

Edison's electric light system is an example. It's one of the foremost examples of an innovation. Or Bell's system of telephone is an innovation.

Those happen to be inventions, and--

Cole: It's an invention that became an innovation.

Billington: An innovation would be the George Washington Bridge. That was a huge innovation, but it wasn't an invention. In other words, there was no patent associated with that, but there was no bridge even faintly close to that in span.

Cole: When you're talking about that kind of practical, sort of seat-of-the-pants idea of innovation and invention and progress, isn't Edison a good example of that?

Billington: Yes, but I would never call it "seat-of-the-pants." This idea that Edison was a tinkerer or the Wright brothers were tinkerers is absolutely wrong. They were first-rate engineers. They operated the way the best engineers always operate--even today.

Cole: Then how did that idea of Edison arise?

Billington: It arises partly because he fabricated it himself. To have a kind of an image of this sort of, you know, rough-cut genius--the Edison method--a lot of industries talk about that, "Well, we just try one thing after another until we get an answer." Edison knew what he was doing always. Sure, he had to try a lot of things.

Nobody had ever found a solution before for the high-resistance filament, for example. What are you going to use for the filament so it doesn't burn itself up right away? He did have to try and err on a lot of things, but that was all done in a very short period of time. He came to the idea that he was working on in 1878, and he produced the working lamp in mid- or late 1879. It was less than a year. That's not a very long time, when he was doing a lot of other things, too.

And he had right next to him one of the best trained mathematical physicists in the country, Francis Upton, who was guiding him in the theoretical sense. He had some of the world's greatest machinists--John Kruesi and some of the others--to build things. So he was a smart guy. He ran a research and development operation that was first rate.

Cole: But this creation of the myth that he was this tinkerer was pervasive.

Billington: Yes. It's a myth that unfortunately persists today. People say, "Well, he wasn't really an engineer." Well, that's just wrong. I mean Fulton was a first-rate engineer, too. They operated like engineers. That is to say they based their work on calculations, but they also tried things out. They made experiments to make sure that it was going to work. And they read the literature and they studied what other people had done. They did everything that good engineers do.

Cole: You may not want to speculate on future innovations, but what do you think is next?

Billington: I'm not a futurist in any remote sense. The present is about as good as you can do. Edison never said, "Ah, this is what's going to happen in ten years." He was not interested in that at all. And had he been interested in it, I think he would have failed.

None of these people were interested in that. They were interested in making money and they were interested in establishing a business. Edison, in a particular example, once he started a company, he became completely uninterested. He left it and went back to his lab.

Tackling the problems that you see around you now and trying to solve them are both very important. And, of course, predicting what is going to find a market is also very important.

Cole: Are we in a technological revolution with the computer?

Billington: I don't think so. Throughout the period since the late eighteenth century people have claimed industrial revolutions. They say the second industrial revolution was the late nineteenth century.

Then, following World War II was another industrial revolution. Now they say there is another industrial revolution. There's change, but there is nothing at all like the change then. Just imagine the differences between 1780 and 1840.

You had no railroad. You had no telegraph. You even had no steamboat. The difference is monumental. We don't have that kind of change today.

When I was a young man, life was a certain way, with cars and planes and radio and even television. Those are still, today, the major things.

Look at the Fortune 500. Today's Fortune 500 are some of the same companies that began in the late nineteenth century. They haven't changed. They have changed some of the products they produce, but they are basically the same kinds of things. But they simply didn't exist before 1876. So those were when big changes happened.

Cole: Let me ask you a little bit about beauty and engineering. I think when people think about the study of engineering they don't really have beauty in mind. Could you digress on that a bit?

Billington: Well, based on the stimulus from the architecture graduate students, I began to study and I went to Europe. I went to Switzerland and met Robert Maillart's family, his daughter in particular. She was very welcoming and interested. So that's when I began that study.

That required French and German and I knew those two languages more or less. Photographs of Maillart's works struck me, and I went to see them then. They were all in Switzerland, and they were so striking that I decided to work on Maillart. So for the next twenty years I spent my time doing the research that was necessary, I thought, to create a written life and works of Maillart and a series of scholarly papers and books.

Now how do you determine beauty? Almost all engineers say, "Oh, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder," "That's a relative thing," "It's not interesting to us because you can never define it, "Everybody has their own opinion," and all that stuff. The only answer that I could find was twofold. One is the sense in which art, real art, becomes classic. People who spend their life with music don't argue about Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms. There is no longer any argument about them.

The same thing is true with painting, maybe not the painting that is done right now, but painting that has sort of matured in the art history world. So I used that classical argument by saying certain works of structure have become classical, such as the Eiffel Tower and Brooklyn Bridge. That was the first part of my argument.

The second part was to say, all right, I'll find out if these things are really beautiful or not by confronting our art museum with them and saying, "Is this worthy of exhibition in an art museum?" In 1972, we held the first exhibition of Maillart in the Princeton University Art Museum. That led to a whole series of exhibitions in the 1970s, culminating in two of them on contemporary Swiss engineers.

So that was a way of convincing other people that if it could be exposed in an art museum--you couldn't bring the big works in there, but if you could bring pictures and models--then the works had beauty.

In 2003, we put on a major exhibition in the art museum "The Art of Structural Design: A Swiss Legacy." Last fall it spent three months at MIT--that's the bastion of engineering, after all--trying to convince them, which I think we did, that aesthetics or art was a really important aspect of engineering. It is in Kansas City now; it will be in Zurich, and then it will go to Toronto, Grinnell College in Iowa, and Smith College in Massachusetts.

By doing that, I think, it was able to overcome the normal engineering objection to whether engineering itself could be art.

Cole: I see. I like your example of the Eiffel Tower, which to me is, in a way, pure engineering, but also one of the most beautiful structures.

I think of other things like the Pantheon, for instance, in Rome, and others. But do you think now, let's say in terms of architecture, that the idea of engineering--I'm thinking about skyscrapers--

Billington: Yes.

Cole: I'm thinking particularly about Mies van der Rohe--the idea of engineering, how a building works and how that is exposed by modern architecture. I mean that we are more conscious of that now and that is part of the aesthetic of modern architecture.

Billington: Let me make a very sharp distinction between structural art and architecture. Mies van der Rohe was stimulated, as all good architects are, by the culture that surrounded him. The Crown Building, you know, that building in Chicago--

Cole: Yes.

Billington:--It is, I would say, an example of a perfectly horrendous structure. It makes no sense whatsoever to a structural engineer.

But that's a different story. Illinois Institute of Technology has worked closely with SOM--Skidmore, Owings & Merrill--and there, that's the only really major example we have in this country where structural art has appeared in works that would normally be considered architecture.

But the Crown Building is not that. If you give me fifteen minutes I could explain why not. I have the original drawings of that building, and it's just all wrong. He's showing structure, for sure, but he's not expressing real structure.

Cole: That's fascinating.

Billington: That's a very big difference. Whereas the Hancock Tower, in Chicago, which gets the same opprobrium as the Eiffel Tower got, is a work of true structural art. That's because an engineer made the form--Fazlur Khan, one of the great engineers of our story. Bruce Graham, the architect, was willing to let Fazlur Khan make the form, and when Graham tried to change it, Khan got so angry that Graham stepped down and let him keep it.

So there are a few skyscrapers like that. Not many. Not many at all, but a few. They are mostly by Fazlur Khan. So he's a big, important figure in our story.

Cole: Interesting.

Billington: Don't misunderstand me. I'm not criticizing the architects now. I'm just saying it's very different.

Cole: Right.

Billington: And I'm not pretending to be an architectural critic, so--

Cole: I understand. Is this just sort of the triumph of the architect's aesthetic ideas over good engineering structure?

Billington: Yes. I'd say it's the feeling that many architects have that engineering structure is simply secondary. They make the form and then they call in the engineer and say, 'Make it stand up.' The trouble is that unless the engineer is really good--and that's very difficult to get a really good engineer to work with an architect like that--then the engineering is likely to be second-rate.

Cole: Well, what about the training of architects? Do they have a lot of engineering?

Billington: There are two types of training that architects get. In some schools they get a very solid training in engineering, while in others very little.

Cole: Let me ask you a couple of not too personal questions. Your brother is the Librarian of Congress. Were you at Princeton together?

Billington: Yes. Yes.

Cole: Did you come from an academic background?

Billington: Well, no. You can say our father should have been a college professor, but his father died young, and he had to go to work when he was a teenager to support his family. So he could never go to college, which he always regretted. He became a successful insurance broker but not an academic, as he should have been. My mother should have been an engineer--her father was an engineer--but in those days you didn't let women be engineers. It was definitely taboo in almost all circles.

Cole: I'd like to talk more about your work on the Swiss engineer, Maillart. You don't think that bridges are architecture? Because, of course, in the history of art, bridges are included.

Billington: No, sir. They are definitely not architecture. Maillart was not trained as an architect. He didn't practice in architecture. He didn't think like an architect. Those works are works of pure structural art. So it's fine for them to be included in the history of art. That's fine.

Cole: So tell me why they are not architecture.

Billington: Architects are educated to think in terms of space. Architects want to control spaces. Engineers are taught to control forces. Architects are taught to deal with constructions that are going to be intimately used by people.

Engineers are not taught that. Engineers' spaces or engineers' buildings or bridges are used by industry or machines, but not intimately by people. Therefore, a bridge, except for very small pedestrian bridges, are not essentially built for intimate use by people. The prototypical work of an architect is a private house, and the prototypical work of an engineer is a public bridge.

As you move in between them, you get to industrial buildings where--and I worked on these when I was in practice--we had architects, but all they were doing was shuffling around room spaces. They had nothing to do with the structural form.

So bridges and certain kinds of buildings are the work of engineers, whereas schools and churches and office buildings are the work of architects. They use engineers, but the engineers are often secondary. Then you get to a middle group where you have very large buildings with long spans or very high buildings. There's an opportunity--and that's what SOM did when Fazlur Khan was alive--there's an opportunity for structural art.

But the structural art must be done collaboratively with architects. When you have a long span roof, like covered stadiums, then there's an opportunity for the engineer to be the designer, although there usually is an architect involved.

I don't know if you know the work of Pier Luigi Nervi in Italy, or Felix Candela in Mexico. Those are works, buildings, some of them are even churches, where the engineer actually makes the form. They become works of structural art.

Candela built hundreds of things. Some are thin shell concrete structures. And these are spectacular structures. Now he was trained as an architect, but he practiced as a builder and a structural engineer. He says that Maillart greatly influenced him. If you ever go to Italy and you look at the Little Sports Palace in Rome, designed by Nervi, you'll see what I mean. I think it's the most spectacular interior space of the twentieth century. And it is designed entirely by an engineer. It's inspired by being in Rome--you walk around Rome, you go to the Forum, you go to the Vatican Museum, and you'll see ribbing patterns that Nervi used, but he's done it in reinforced concrete, and he's done it in a unique way. He was also a contractor, a builder.

Cole: It's a good example of engineering as art, as great art.

Billington: That's right. And that's why we can put these things in our art museum. Christian Menn, who is practicing today, is the world's greatest bridge designer. He never works as an architect, and he would boggle if you called him an architect. Othmar Ammann, who designed all the New York bridges, was a great engineering artist. Actually, his bridges are so big that he did hire an architect to help him with some of the overpass details and approaches. But the bridges themselves, the basic forms, were done by him.

Cole: The Brooklyn Bridge has a romantic quality. Why do you think that is?

Billington: It's because of the way it was designed.

The most impressive feature of it is its central elevated walkway, which Roebling purposely put there, and you can therefore walk through the structure and you can see the city through the structure, just like you can with the Eiffel Tower. That makes it a spectacular thing for artists.

Cole: Isn't it, though, that these bridge builders use form and function in the way they calibrate their structures? Those are the basic elements of art.

Billington: Yes, of art, but not architecture, even though they are art. In other words, everything in that bridge by Roebling is there for an extreme structural purpose. Now he wanted to show it off. That's why the elevated walkway walks through it.

But what he's walking through is a structure, all parts of which are essential.

Cole: On some of these bridges where they have hired artists or sculptors, it's a kind of embellishment--

Billington: Well, it diminishes the quality of it and makes it often very difficult to maintain. It usually makes them very expensive. They just finished a bridge out in Redding, California, which is very famous, many people praising it. It cost eight times the budget. Eight times the budget. That's not structural art at all because the principles of structural art are first, efficient form, that is to say, waste no materials. The second is economical form, waste no money. That's the discipline of structural art. Within that discipline, there is plenty of opportunity for the designer to play with the form and express his own or her own aesthetic vision. That's the way these engineers work: discipline and play.

When people say, "Well, but you have to have lots of money to do the play," then I can show them the works of Maillart. Maillart was chosen for his bridges almost always because they were less expensive. That was the reason he got his commissions. The high art world thought they were ugly.

Cole: What drew you to him?

Billington: The beauty of his work. That's what drew me to him. These architecture students showed me the pictures, and they were very stunning, and I thought, I've never seen anything like that. Here I was already a professor and had practiced for eight years and I had never even heard of Maillart. Few engineers had heard of Maillart. The architects, even though I'm not talking about them as bridge designers, some of them are very good critics of structure. And it was architectural historians or architects such as Siegfried Gideon and Max Bill, who wrote about Maillart and brought him to the attention of a lot of people.

That was what drew me to him. It was purely aesthetic to begin with. My challenge was to find out whether it was good engineering.

Cole: Okay.

Billington: I found out that he was the best engineer of his time, the best one purely technically. That's what led me to understand that all of these artists were also, from a technical, innovative point of view, the best. It was not a question of designers making pure pictures or sculptural objects. These structural artists were combining the very best, most innovative, most advanced engineering ideas and making them also beautiful.

Beauty gets you first. That's why all the lectures are visual, and the emphasis, initially, is always visual. That's the way you interest people nowadays. We live in a very visual world now, and the students are oriented this way. So you get them by the visual thing and then you say, "Now we're going to make the calculations, which are very simple, and show you how efficient these are."

Cole: In Switzerland, of course, you can see not only these wonderful bridges, but how they fit in to their environment. It's a spectacular aesthetic experience.

Billington: That's correct. That's exactly right.

Cole: Well, this has been terrific. Thank you very much.